We participate in conversations all the time. They come so naturally to us that we don’t even think about them. But we need to think about them because the ability to talk about issues without getting triggered and dysfunctional makes or breaks our effectiveness — as individuals, teams and organizations.
Almost nobody is born with the ability to have open, balanced, non-defensive dialogue about tough subjects in challenging circumstances. Yet, this is a skill that can be learned.
Our company recently teamed up with Craig Weber, an expert in the field of Conversational Capacity®, a discipline that teaches people to find the “sweet spot,” where candor and honesty are balanced with curiosity and open-mindedness. In the sweet spot, people move beyond personalities and focus on a bigger purpose. This is where breakthroughs and innovations happen.
As Craig points out, anyone can learn to have these powerful conversations by focusing on three areas: awareness, mindset and skillset.
Awareness: Tune into feelings and behavior patterns
When tough subjects come up, most of us have either a fight or flight reaction. We either become more aggressive, pushing our point of view, or we retreat, fearing confrontation. These reactions are usually automatic and unconscious — and both get in the way of productive communication. By becoming aware of our reactions, we can make conscious choices about how to respond.
Awareness also means paying attention to the big picture. We need to ask: What’s the purpose of this meeting or conversation? Is this discussion lining up with that purpose, or against it? By becoming self-aware, we can close any gap between our behavior and the purpose of the conversation.
Mindset: Turn the focus from ego to learning
All too often we let our egos push us out of the sweet spot between candor and curiosity. For example, when we’re an expert on a subject, we might want to show off our smartness. We might become overly assertive or even argumentative, pushing our point at the expense of others. In other words, our candor goes too far.
Or we might do the opposite. We have views and ideas, but we don’t put them out there, because we want to avoid scrutiny or rejection. In this case, we’re not candid enough.
Both these approaches squander learning. We need to put our egos aside and refocus on what we can learn from others or what others can learn from us.
Skillset: Cultivate candor and curiosity
By practicing the following four skills, we can lead conversations in productive directions and resolve difficult issues. The first two skills build candor; the second two build curiosity.
1. State your position concisely. Don’t be the person who fits one sentence into twenty paragraphs. Stick to no more than one or two sentences.
2. Explain the thinking behind your position. Use the phrase, “Let me show you how I got here.” Otherwise, you risk coming off as hyper-opinionated.
3. Test your thinking. Be curious about where you might be making an erroneous assumption. It’s hard to test your thinking with your own thinking, so bounce it off others. Say, “Here’s what I think; here’s why I think it. What am I missing?”
4. Make genuine inquiries into the views of others. If someone’s not participating, invite them into the discussion. For example, you might say, “Connie, we haven’t heard from you yet. Given everything you’ve heard so far, what do you think is the best course of action?” If someone has put something forward, ask them how they got there: “It would be helpful if you’d show us how you came to this conclusion.” If someone is rambling, refocus the conversation: “Bill, you’ve been talking for a while. I’m a little unclear; do you like this or not?”
Conversation is commonplace but not always effective. Trained in conversational skills, we can participate in fruitful discussions that lead to extraordinary breakthroughs. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to have conversations driven by the better angels of our nature, rather than by our base emotional impulses!